MakingSmallGroupsWorkI went to college with big dreams and expectations. When I was a high school senior, the Southern Methodist University golf coach invited me to Dallas to tour the school and recruit me to come play golf there in the fall. I remember the excitement of playing a U.S. Open course on that trip and dreaming about playing college golf. One week before I left for college, a tendon popped in my left hand. The severe pain abated with cortisone treatments, but it would come back as soon as the medicine wore off. When I got to school, the coach who had recruited me had left, and I was never pain-free long enough to build on my skills. Finally, after two years of struggle, playing well for a while and then poorly, I quit the game that I had dedicated my youth to.

Feeling depressed and bored with my studies, I tried to keep my lost feelings at bay with parties and dating.

One day I was in my dorm room obsessing about my empty life. I could not make the ache go away.

Then something happened that would forever change my life. I looked up on my bookshelf and saw my Bible—the one I had not read since coming to college. I remember thinking, “Maybe something in there would help.” So I opened it, and a random verse jumped out at me: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

I read it again. “What things?” I asked myself. Then I looked at the whole passage. It was telling me to seek God first and then all these things that I was obsessing about would fall into place.

Was that really true? Was there really a God who could do that? And if he really were there, would he? My thoughts raced as I considered God in a way I never had before. I wasn’t just “thinking about God.” I was being presented with a defining choice.

I decided to go for it. Sensing the seriousness, I walked across campus and looked for a church. Alone in a dark, empty chapel, I looked up and told God that if he were really there, I would do whatever he told me to do. If he would just show up, I would follow him and do what he said. I waited for him to “zap” me. I waited for a vision. Nothing happened.

I remember feeling a great sense of both relief and emptiness. Relief because after years of playing around with God, I’d come clean and said I would give it all. But empty because I did not sense him there and knew that if he did not show up, I was alone in the universe with nowhere to go and no way to find my way. Doing it on my own had not gotten me very far. I just stared at the ceiling, still wanting him to zap me. Finally I walked back, cold and dreary, to my room.

A while later, the phone rang. It was a fraternity brother. We hadn’t talked recently, but he was calling to invite me to a Bible study. I remember his saying that it was strange that he even thought to call me, as I was not overtly into spiritual things. But he felt moved to do it—and I felt as if God was maybe showing up just as I had asked.

Maybe I would go to this Bible study and find God. I thought someone might pray for me, or I would pray, and then God would reach down and finally zap me supernaturally. I would be healed. I would feel good again. I’d find answers to all I was supposed to do. A princess would fall from the sky. After all, I was going the “God route” now, and I expected a miracle.

Well, I did not get my zapping. But I met some new people. Bill, a seminary student, led the Bible study. He and his wife, Julie, opened up their home to me. I decided to take a semester off from school to figure it all out. I moved in with them, and they and another small group became my new spiritual community.

Still depressed and lost, I asked Bill why God did not zap me and make me feel better. His answer—one several people had given as I’d opened up about my feelings—was an answer I was beginning to hate. He said, “Well, sometimes God does that, and he just heals people. But God uses people, too.” That was the phrase I hated: “God uses people, too.”

Bill meant that I had a lot to learn, and he wanted me to “get discipled” and learn about the faith. He also wanted me to get counseling for my depression, another way God uses people. And he thought I should be involved in more spiritual community and relationships. I remember thinking that “God uses people, too” was a “Plan B.”

To me, if you were going to get something from God, you should get it “from him,” not from people. That was my Plan A—the real spiritual healing, the miracle cure. I thought that when we pray and ask God to heal or to change our lives, he should zap us with a supernatural something. Lightning, earthquakes, visions, or something like that. Knock me down and fix me.

This “God uses people” seemed a spiritual cop-out. If God did not do something, then people had to. So how was that really God? Even if it were God, it was somehow less than the real thing, the zap. But, since I was getting no zapping, I didn’t have much of a choice. I got involved in all the small group experiences Bill suggested.

Over the next months, people in my groups loved me, corrected me, confronted me, challenged me, taught me, supported me, and helped heal deep pain and loss. They forgave, accepted, and pushed me. I was learning that I was emotionally disconnected and lacked key relational skills, even though I had a lot of friends. I was not as “real” as I thought I had been. My small group friends taught me that my performance and accomplishments provided a flimsy foundation for measuring my life and my acceptance.

My life was changing through being in a small group, as when the sun comes up in the morning. You don’t know exactly when daylight occurs. But you know when it has arrived and that it happened through a process.

One morning I woke and thought, I am not depressed anymore. Lying in bed, I pondered how full life had become. I had purpose, meaning, and a new set of talents and abilities the group had encouraged me to pursue. I had new friends and lots of experiences with God. The Bible had become my love. I studied it all the time, and I was having more fun dating than I had without God. Imagine that! All in all, I thought, life is good again. No, not again. In many ways, for the first time. I was full in a way I never had been. And I knew I had God to thank for giving me this new life and all these people who had helped me. I also had another thought, which seems silly now, but gets to the heart of what happened that day I was training those ministers: I feel good, but I still wish God had healed me. He never did.

I still thought I had gotten Plan B. In my thinking, the supernatural zap was Plan A, and “God uses people, too” was Plan B. I was healed, but God didn’t do it, at least not directly. He did it through people. It was like going to the Super Bowl but sitting in the cheap seats. I saw the game, but not from the box. I got the healing, but not directly from him. I got second best. Still, I was grateful and moved on.

Then one day something happened to further change my life and my understanding of how people grow. I was reading in Ephesians about how we grow into maturity: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16).

I read the verse again. A few thoughts struck me. From him, meaning God, the body, meaning us, grows, meaning changes, as each part does its work, meaning that people help each other. That was exactly what I had experienced in my own life and what I had seen while working with others. And this passage said it was from him that the body does these things. It hit me in a new way. What I had called Plan B, God using people, was not a cop-out at all. It was really God’s Plan A. He had written right there in the Bible that he planned for his people to grow through people helping people. The body would “build itself up in love.” God had healed me after all! Not in some secondary way, but in the way he had intended from the beginning. It was not the cheap seats! This was the fifty-yard line!

Then I began to see this truth all over the pages of the New Testament. God was saying the same thing in many different places: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:10–11).

While I had been waiting for God to zap me supernaturally, he had been doing just that. He was zapping me with the love he had put into those around me. He was zapping me with truthful confrontations from those in my group. He was zapping me with healing as they held my hurts and pain. God had been working in the way he designed his body to work—and it worked. And that was Plan A all along.

Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (2010). Making small groups work: what every small group leader needs to know. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.